An off-season riddled with change thrust a team loaded with young players onto the field at the end of last month, and now, in its third week of practice, it looks like there is steady progress being made on all fronts. While the offense has received the majority of attention for all the changes being made, it must be pointed out the defense has its fair share of learning to do as well with so many players lacking playing experience. Through it all, the man behind the curtain -- head coach Bill Stewart -- has taken a much more passive position in the spring, allowing his staff to coach within their own means.
That's not to say Stew has his hands off the wheel, but his role has morphed into more mechanic than driver. He makes sure that everything is operating as it should and fine tunes the machine as needed. The mark of his message to the team is one of verbal inspiration. Buzz words like "unity" and "motivation" have been staples of his spring coaching campaign. The latest addition to his arsenal --"desire" -- was the theme for Wednesday morning.
"I'll tell you what I told the football team - it was a very brief message at the end," Stewart opened with his overall impression of the day's practice. "I send out tweets to certain friends, the team and coaches, and last week I sent one out about desire. You have to have a desire to come out to the practice field, and if that desire dominates your every thought, you're going to get better."
Stewart wants to instill a sense of leadership and collectiveness in his players as soon as possible before summer sessions begin and practices become more intense and complex in the fall.
"If you're a guy who counts practices and periods, then [the message about desire] didn't even work. For those guys who truly want to be great, master the fundamentals, get out here and get better, and play Mountaineer football, today was a very good day. These guys absolutely got after each other. I liked our 7-on-7 and pass rush, and I thought the team ended very well. I'm very pleased with their effort. I do like our enthusiasm - the way we came out and went to work - and I'm proud of the way our upperclassmen are leading."
Fundamentals have certainly been the primary emphasis, as they typically are in spring sessions. Though in West Virginia's case, it has been critical to develop and cultivate each player's mental attributes toward the team's operating goals. Finding talent comes with time, finding leadership takes presence, perseverance and -- guess what? Desire.
"Geno (Smith) has become a good leader, and I'm starting to see some linemen step up," Stewart mentioned standouts on the offensive side of the ball. "I really like that. Tyler Urban has been a real leader in the weight room and out on the field. Stedman Bailey makes plays, and Ivan McCartney had a good day. Brad Starks got a little banged up at the end, but I thought we caught the ball really well, and that is tough out there in the mist and slight rain."
The defense lost many of its playmakers -- and with them, leadership -- due to graduation and early departure. But as practice continues, Stewart is starting to see some people fill those roles.
"Defensively, Bruce Irvin comes off that edge like a bullet. I thought Najee Goode had a good day, and then back in the secondary I thought the guys were disguising well. Right off the get-go you see Terence Garvin - he is a ball hawk. He is growing into a leadership role and is disguising better, and from what I see he is catching the ball over the receivers."
The injuries along the roster obviously stunt the progress of several of the Mountaineers' returning players, but it has benefited younger players who will certainly need the experience in the coming season. That greatly helps a team with so much uncertainty at many positions as well as the depth behind them. Even through the clouds and rain, Stewart manages to cast his own rays of sunshine.